If you print thousands of advance copies of yet another retelling of the Enron saga by one of the business category's top writers, but don't mention the company's tarnished name anywhere on the cover of the 750-page tome, will it increase the chances that readers will pick it up? That's one question Broadway Books is facing as it prepares to publish Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools on March 15.

The larger question is whether positioning the book as a true-crime thriller can help it outperform the string of major Enron books that failed to earn back their large advances, including Power Failure by journalist Mimi Schwartz and whistleblower Sherron Watkins (Doubleday, 2003) and The Smartest Guys in the Room by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (Portfolio, 2003).

While Broadway's planned 127,500 first printing isn't as bullish as the 200,000 copies S&S has announced for James Stewart's much-hyped Disney War (Feb. 22), it's still a sizable bet. After all, few business narratives have come close to selling the 300,000 claimed by Bryan Burrough's Barbarians at the Gate or Stewart's Den of Thieves in the early 1990s.

Stacking the Odds

Doubleday president Steve Rubin's instinct—that the key to success is getting people to read the first five pages of Conspiracy of Fools—looks like the right one, based on early signs like PW's positive review. The house started its campaign for the book with a 4,000-copy ARC printing last November that sparked a strong enough response from early readers to rationalize a whopping 6,000-copy reprint in January. (The reprint marks the first time Doubleday has circulated as many pre-pub copies as it did for the 2003 phenom The Da Vinci Code.) The ARC also prompted something that Rubin characterized as "astonishing": Peter Olson, Richard Sarnoff and Don Weisberg "made it their own."

Random COO Weisberg got senior management at Barnes & Noble on board, negotiating an appearance by Eichenwald at the B&N managers' meeting this month and distributing 950 galleys to regional managers, in addition to setting up an 800-copy distribution to Borders managers. Meanwhile, Random House CEO Olson and Random House Ventures president Sarnoff are making a rare personal pitch to top business leaders: mailing ARCs to 1,000 Fortune 100 companies and hosting a CEO luncheon on February 23 with Eichenwald as guest of honor. Even Phyllis Grann, who's currently a senior editor at Doubleday, is part of the act, sending copies with a personal note to 163 business school deans. Rubin is also counting on the Random rank-and-file to spread the word, following a "desk-drop" of 1,650 ARCs; the only other similar drop was with finished copies of Bill Clinton's My Life.

Of course, Eichenwald inspires a great deal of confidence, as a veteran New York Times reporter and two-time Polk Award winner. And so does the performance of his last book, The Informant (Broadway, 2000), a true-crime tale about price-fixing at Archer Daniels Midland that became a Business Week bestseller and one of the magazine's top 10 picks for the year. With 48,000 hardcovers and 91,000 trade paperbacks after nine printings, it even has a shot at a third act, when a feature film adaptation directed by Stephen Soderbergh and starring Matt Damon arrives in 2006.

It's also notable that Doubleday president Steve Rubin placed Eichenwald's new book in the hands of executive editor Stacy Creamer shortly after she arrived at Doubleday three years ago from Putnam, where she built her career largely as a fiction editor under Grann. "I'm not very much of a business book reader," Creamer admitted. "But basically this is a story where the roles everyone plays are a function of their character. And really good mystery novels go like that, too."

But there's no sidestepping the fact that of the nearly two dozen Enron books that have come and gone, only McLean and Elkind's has shown any real staying power. And while it sold roughly 75,000copies in hardcover and 20,000 in paperback, it didn't earn back its $1.4-million advance.

On the other hand, the failure of all those Enron books has steered editors away from signing up major books about the scandals surrounding Worldcom, Tyco and Martha Stewart, leaving Eichenwald a fairly open playing field.

Among Conspiracy's early fans is Jack Covert, president of 800-CEO-READ, who found it more satisfying than the previous Enron books: "At this point, people won't be as enthralled by the [business] manipulations, but the writing is at least as good as Barbarians. Better books take longer to write," he said.

Though the September timing of the trials of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and president Jeff Skilling isn't ideal for Broadway's March publication, other media is coming together. Building on a first serial excerpt on the cover of the Sunday Money & Business section of the New York Times on March 13, Broadway publicity director David Drake has lined up a major national TV show he declined to name. The house also recently doubled its marketing budget for the title, to include full-page ads in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle, in addition to its galley campaign and a seven-city tour.

But in the end, the book's three-year gestation and all the marketing support Broadway can muster can't give Conspiracy of Fools what all the other Enron books have also lacked: a courtroom denouement. Whatever happens with Eichenwald, we may see more Enron books yet.